CHEYENNE – Jessica Delancy’s mother might as well be a stranger.
It has been nearly a decade since Delancy’s mother, struggling with mental health issues, grappling with addiction and working two jobs, dropped then-6-year-old Delancy off at her grandmother’s house in Cheyenne.
She hasn’t seen or heard from her since.
Now, Delancy is a straight-A student at Cheyenne’s South High School, living with her grandmother, Debbie Bumford, in south Cheyenne. Her little brother, Robert Campbell, fondly known as “B-Man,” is thriving in sports and activities at Johnson Junior High.
But for many years, Delancy worried she’d see her mother out in public, or that her mother would come to take Delancy and Campbell away from the only stable home they’d ever known.
“For a while, I was really paranoid,” Delancy said. “And not having the power to do anything, it was scary.”
Delancy had reason to fear.
It is estimated that more than 10,200 Wyoming children live with a relative such as a grandparent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
But under current Wyoming law, caregivers such as grandparents, aunts and uncles don’t have the same consideration under the law as biological parents, even if they have legal guardianship.
It means that even though Delancy’s grandmother legally took over guardianship responsibilities, Delancy and Campbell could have ended up back with their mother if she moved to terminate Bumford’s guardianship rights.
And unless guardians such as Bumford can prove the biological parents “unfit” to care for the child – a difficult finding that often costs thousands of dollars and a large timeframe to prove – the kids go back with the biological parents, sometimes against their will.
This year, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee is sponsoring a bill that would protect children staying with third-party caregivers, known in the bill as “de facto custodians.”
Under House Bill 15, the child’s “best interest” would be considered in court proceedings when parents petition to revoke the guardianship of third-party caretakers.
Annie McGlothlin is leading the charge.
McGlothlin is a 63-year-old grandmother caring for her daughter’s 5-year-old son, Jayden. Jayden’s last name will not be used for his safety and privacy.
He came into McGlothlin’s care in July 2014 after his mother was brutally beaten by his father. Affidavits submitted in court outline how the pair abused alcohol and drugs, and the child’s mother suffered from mental health problems.
Years of on-and-off contact with the child’s mother and failed attempts at reunification made it obvious that McGlothlin and her husband, Steve, would become Jayden’s primary caretakers.
But any semblance of stability came crumbling down when Jayden’s father returned via letters and a court petition after a stint in prison, threatening to revoke the McGlothlins’ guardianship rights.
And even though the father was arrested earlier this month suspected of counterfeiting and charged with methamphetamine distribution, the McGlothlins still feared that he could’ve taken the child if he stayed out of prison.
That’s, in part, because case law in federal and Wyoming courts dictate that parents have a fundamental, constitutional right to raise their children.
The U.S. Supreme Court found in 2000 that parents have a constitutionally protected right to “make decisions concerning the care, custody and control of their children.”
In 2006, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that the court must first determine that a child’s natural guardian is not fit before considering whether it is in the child’s best interest to return to the biological parent.
In cases such as the McGlothlins’, those rulings mean the grandparents are forced to prove the parents are so unfit that they shouldn’t have custody rights at all.
“That’s obviously a very difficult action to take,” said state Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, who is an attorney practicing civil and family law.
To prove a parent unfit, guardians have to present evidence that the person is incapable of caring for the child or there’s an unwillingness to do so.
But since the guardians can’t easily compel parents to take drug tests and often don’t have enough resources to hire private investigators, it’s nearly impossible to do.
Nethercott said the proposal would give guardians such as the McGlothlins and the children a say in the child’s fate without terminating the parent’s rights altogether.